Trying to work up that ‘the con is on’ gag below, I went on to Twitter (here I am) asking for suggestions about what normally passes for curtain-up at a
Doctor Who convention. I got a few funny responses, but nothing that told me what actually happens. Ah, Twitter.
Anomaly, rubbish, paradox (and particularly this year) thing. These are Doctor Who words. Heist, isn’t. Where they are fuzzy phrases, it is assured. In the Doctor’s universe, one solid hope outweighs a cartload of certainty, so it’s an interesting exercise to see our bumbly fumbly do-the-best-you-can show slick back its hair and channel a little of that Little Green Bag swagger.
Well, to a point. It remains Doctor Who, so it’s more of a ‘big blue box’ silly walk – a laboured comparison, but, hopefully, you see my point.
This is a tale that in the very first shot spins expectations so that the Satanic Nebula is entreated over visuals of Clara’s smalls tumbling around her Zanussi. The move establishes something important about Time Heist, that it has no serious pretensions towards being cool in a Tarantino or Ocean’s Eleven way. Although, there is some flirtation with the aesthetics – the golden glow from the innards of the Architect’s suitcase, the requisite slo mo sequence of the grifters walking along in line-up and the imaginative wipes between scenes – everyone knows cool is anathema to Doctor Who. Cool cannot accommodate the notion of a psychic space slug who is hopelessly in love with another psychic space slug.
Not so big on the glamour, then, but Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat’s script does still act as something of a proposition bet: we think we’ve understood the game, but a switch-up at the last moment reveals additional components which, unknown to us, have always been in play. It’s all about that jump-cut. One moment the Doctor is talking on the TARDIS phone, the next he’s shrieking in horror at a memory worm. Between these two points is the explanation for all that follows. However this is a promise for later.
As well as deferred revelations, a caper of this type requires a sequence wherein we see the gang coming together. Mindful it only has 45 minutes to play with, Time Heist fulfils this obligation with absolute class. When we meet Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner) and Psi (Jonathan Bailey), it’s already a done deal. So much so, they’re in the midst of the mission with bank security about to break into the room. It’s abbreviated storytelling at its very best, although it does mean both characters only ever really exist as sketches. Initially I took Psi to be a 21st century Pex (of “brave and bold as a Kang should be” fame), but then that very welcome glimpse of Doctor Who Weekly’s Abslom Daak crystalised it. Psi has the leather jacket, silly hair and cyborg appendages. She, the crazy superpower. Both are of that same brutally heightened comic-strip world as Daak. After this, one can imagine Psi’s off to pull a few Gs with the Freefall Warriors in a shark-shaped spaceship.
The final prerequisite of a story such as this is the ‘mark’. Enter Ms Delphox, played with largesse by Keeley Hawes. Could a pair of spectacles signal ‘baddie’ more than those? Her comeuppance is almost entirely justified by such eyewear. Happily, though, she isn’t simply portrayed as yet another boringly evil banker. There’s no – thank God – The Now Show-type satire around obscenely-sized bonuses and the like. This is a little more subtle, equipping her with the happy moral certitude that comes with being enmeshed into a big corporation. “I regret to say your guilt has been detected,” she chirrups, when the Teller is sicced onto a potentially crooked customer. And then after the creature’s made its cranial withdrawal, she bids “everyone have a lovely day,” with a breezy kind of righteousness.
Under Moffat, hardly a year has gone by without duplicate characters being used as a plot point and we’re at the stage now where our first guess always has to be that there’s a clone around the corner. In this case, the Delphox/Karabraxos axis feels justified. Not only does the latter help to undercut the former’s assuredness, but it’s also a rather direct way of illustrating the self-loathing that will go on to fuel Karabraxos’ deathbed mea culpa. That the mark is actually the customer is the ultimate switcheroo and something only Doctor Who could pull off. “It’s not just a bank heist,” says the Doctor, “it’s a time travel heist!” A time travel heist, orchestrated by the Doctor from the future. Pretty clever.
Indeed there is a lot of cleverness around Time Heist. Aside from anything else, the starting notion of convincingly co-opting the Doctor into committing a bank robbery is challenging enough, but it’s turned into light work. Alas, against this is the reality that on screen a lot of what is undertaken turns into rather lowbrow old school Doctor Who. So many corridors – like in the parodies. An inordinate amount of time is spent with characters creeping along the same piece of passageway, albeit lit in varying styles. And sometimes they’re even trying to escape from a slow, lumbering monster – again, like in the parodies. When that escape comes, it’s down one of many oversized ducts, hilariously signposted: ‘No entry under any circumstance.’ A Doctor Who story with this many service tunnels running through really does need to take a long hard look at itself. It’s literally riddled with holes. Plus it’s a massive visual undercut to all the propaganda about the bank of Karabraxos being impregnable.
Maybe I’m trying to work up an analogy with this. Maybe I’m trying to say that the experience of watching this story is a bit like being the night watchman in an art theft movie, who makes the stomach-sinking discovery that while a very pretty gilded frame still hangs on the wall, there’s no sign of the expected masterpiece within.
No, actually, that doesn’t work. Because while it was all kicking off, I enjoyed Time Heist. I particularly enjoyed Peter Capaldi almost dancing as he delivered the expositional bits, and giving it loads with his hands. Also, the line: “I was hoping for minimalism but I came out with magician.” And the absolute overlap with In the Loop, his “shuttity up” being just a couple of consonant shifts away from Malcolm Tucker’s celebrated “f***ity bye”. Plus, despite me being disparaging about its mobility issues, the Teller is a quintessential Doctor Who monster. What’s not to like?
Imagine a whooshing sound and all this text rewinding at speed in front of your eyes. Here we are again where we expected to be, back at the start. We’re considering the Whoishness, or otherwise, of the word heist. Still looks weird in this context. But then a bassline creeps in. A shake of the tambourine. “Yeah!” We’re not knocking over the Bellagio, the Mirage or the MGM Grand. We’re heading for a chain-hotel, because in Doctor Who parlance that ice-cold phrase, ‘the con is on’, actually means – great news everyone! – the Novotel has been booked and Peter Purves, Ian McNeice and a man from Torchword have confirmed availability.
Similarly, there’s nothing arch about Time Heist. It’s not attempting to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. It just seems to want to get in there, do the job at speed and with some style, and then get out again before any of us really cotton on to what’s happened. That it doesn’t quite bring it all together feels exemplified by the Doctor’s limp last line – “Beat that for a date” – which plays like Thompson and Moffat returning to dialogue they’d originally put down as a placeholder in the hope something better would subsequently occur. But then, is the Doctor required to be firing off zingers all the time? This has been his heist movie, and lookin’ back, on the track, he did it his way.